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December 19, 2004


Mel has been scooping me big-time when it comes to film reviews, but I finally got a chance to see Mike Nichols' Closer (IMDB) tonight. Like Mel, I thought the film was beautifully photographed, with the London settings very effectively capturing the mood of the film, and Damien Rice's melancholic music, which plays during both the opening and closing credits, fits the film's mature treatment of love perfectly. And, like Mel, I found the casting choices interesting and effective, especially Julia Roberts playing against type as a relatively unglamorous photographer who is usually wearing, as Mel puts it, "some great men's trousers."

Closer focuses on four characters, Dan (Jude Law), an obituarist and sometimes novelist, and Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper; and Anna (Roberts), a photographer, and Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist. The film opens with Dan meeting Alice for the first time, in a near fantasy sequence, with the two of them gradually approaching each other on the sidewalk, Alice's "Lola Red" hair shining in the sun. Lola, an American, forgets London's traffic rules, steps in foront of a car, and sustains a minor injury. Dan takes her to the hospital. Later, Dan inadvertently plays Cupid for Anna and Larry by posing in a sex chatroom as "Anna" and seducing Larry, arranging a meeting in an aquarium. When Anna happens to be there, she figures out the joke, but begins to date (and eventually marries) Larry.

The film is based on a play (Patrick Marber adapted his own play), and there are only six speaking parts in the entire film. While the characters are fascinating, articulate, and complicated, I experienced this tight focus as claustrophobic. The film's narrative is also fairly elliptical, often skipping several years to move to the next pertinent moment. I realize this is part of the point of the film, but for whatever reason, I found these temporal ellipses a bit frustrating, especially when Dan reveals to Alice that he's been having an affair with Anna for over a year. I think the problem for me is that the film doesn't convey that duration very effectively. I didn't sense (from my experience of the film) that Dan and Alice had even been together for a year, so the betrayal didn't really register like it could have (A.O. Scott has a much more generous reading of the temporal gaps than I do).

Even with that (minor) gripe, I relished the articulate screenplay. All of the characters are clearly articulate, using their dialogue in a variety of ways: to deceive, to wound, to challenge. Dan, posing as Anna, tricks Larry in a sex chatroom. Alice questions whether or not Anna's photographs of working class pain are truly "honest" or whether they are simply comfort narratives for bourgeois art consumers. Alice is stripper, someone who might seem to reveal everything, but when she sees Larry at the club, Larry has what seems to be a profound moment of emotional self-revelation. And, of course, we learn at the end of the film that perhaps the most surprising deception has been comitted by Alice herself.

I'm not quite sure what to do with the film's treatment of authenticity, or perhaps, more precisely, honesty. But I think that's one of the great strengths of the film. It doesn't offer easy answers about romance, sex, or love. It's far from a predictable film, which is very much in its favor. In ways, Closer seems to fit nicely alongside the more critically-acclaimed Sideways and Before Sunset as a film that treats adult relationships in a serious, thought-provoking way.

Update (2:09 AM): Two things. First, I'm not sure what this says about me, but everyone has been talking about the film's heavy use of profanity. To be honest, I didn't really notice. I just thought that's how people speak. Second, some of those same people have been comparing Closer to Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, but I don't think that's really representative of what Nichols and Marber are doing in this film. Where the characters in LaBute's films seem downright immoral, sinners who will eventually find themselves in the hands of an angry G-d, the characters in Closer seem a bit more complicated, less doomed to hell and instead merely deluded.

Posted by chuck at December 19, 2004 12:26 AM

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All good points about the film. I like your point about the duration problem. If they didn't want to add dialogue, maybe they could have added 'musical montage' sections, which set us up for the jumps.

The dialogue was for me the best part of it. I liked the density of it; practically every sentence was meaningful or suggestive in some way.

And the symmetrical/asymmetrical love 'quadrangle' made me want to talk about the film afterwards.

But I also have to say I still found the whole thing rather depressing, as if Marber is taunting us with characters who are simultaneously very intelligent and completely helpless against the course of their own feelings.

Posted by: Amardeep at December 19, 2004 9:05 AM

I'm torn about the "duration problem," to some extent. In ways, it puts us off guard as viewers, with the result that we have to actively reconstruct those missing months or years ourselves.

And, yes, the desnity of the dialogue was amazing. I saw the film alone but found myself wanting to talk about the film and overheard several couples and groups discussing the film very energetically.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2004 9:57 AM

The temporal jumps bothered my wife more than me. I suggested they could have added Wayne and Garth going "doodly-do, doodly-do." But in the context of a play adaptation, it makes more sense. They could have just faded to black, and this would have been fine.

I didn't notice the bad language either :).

I'm a little surprised this has received mixed reviews. I recognize it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I thought it was well worth seeing.

Posted by: Alex Halavais at December 19, 2004 11:31 AM

I am surprised at the negative reviews, too. In fact, I liked the film quite a bit better than the more critically-acclaimed (and slightly more affirmative) Sideways. I wonder if the depressing subject matter is affecting critical response.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2004 11:56 AM

By the way, thanks for the positive review on Amazon, Alex!!

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2004 2:08 PM

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